The Caroline

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Something about Wyatt.

Caroline picked up her small gun and quietly left her room, closing the door equally quietly behind her and turning the key to lock it before she removed it, and then walked slowly along the carpeted corridor. She went along to the room that should have been her room, intending to join Wyatt there. It was not proper, of course, and not what a young woman careful of her reputation should do, but she had gone beyond those cares. She was a year older after all and was in no danger from Mr. Wyatt. She had long decided that when she reached twenty-one, two years behind her now, that she did not have to fear for her safety as much as she had. Except she did not feel any different for being a full year older than she had been yesterday.

She froze into immobility every time a board squeaked or groaned beneath her weight. It had been repaired in places after the damage of that war and the heavy bombardment of Union guns that must have shaken everything loose if it had not destroyed it. The carpenters had needed to let everything they had replaced with relatively green wood settle into place before they went around with wedges and nails to tighten everything up and to silence those noises if they ever did get around to it. It didn’t sound as though they had. There were always too many things to address.

Wyatt was in the room she had been given: 207. She hoped he would not assume the worst and decide to shoot first, but she knew that he would not. He wanted someone to come to that room so that he could get answers to those questions that he had been denied answers to after that first incident on board the boat.

She tried the handle, finding that the door was not locked. Most rash of him, but she knew why. She pushed it slowly open into the room and allowed her eyes to adjust to the darker room after the brighter light of the corridor, as low as it had been, before she stepped in. She realized that the lamp on the table behind her in the corridor, probably made her a perfect target, but she had no fear of being shot. Wyatt was one who would know exactly who it was he was shooting at before he fired.

She moved slowly into the room and closed the door carefully behind herself. She walked across to the bed, careful not to kick anything and hurt her feet—she was in her bare feet. He must be awake, surely, but she could not see him, though it looked as though he were in bed from the little light that came in through the open window. How could he sleep at such a time as this, waiting for a possible murderer to appear, and with his door unlocked?

“Wyatt?” she whispered his name.

“Here!” His whispered response did not come from the bed but from behind dressing screens on the far side of the room. He was not in that bed as she had assumed but had left her pillows there to make it look as though she were. He was also certainly not asleep. She walked carefully across the floor in the almost total darkness to where his voice had come from, intent on not kicking anything with her bare feet as her eyes gradually adjusted, and she went behind the screen to find him. He was lounged out (she thought) along a chaise, though she heard him putting his feet to the floor as she approached and reached out to find her hand to guide her to sit with him. She kept a small distance away, though it almost did not matter. She had already violated everything that a wise woman should be cautious about and should never have been in a man’s bedroom with him at that time of night (nor at any other time) or as ill dressed as she was. She hoped he would not misread her.

He had been able to see the door, and her, outlined in the light from it as it had opened. He had known immediately who she was, dressed as she was, and not as tall as the man that it might have been. She sat at the other end of the chaise, maintaining a respectable distance between them (though respectable only in daylight and with a chaperone in the same room to keep an eye on them both, and not as they were now, alone together and dressed as improperly as they were) with her hands and her pistol in her lap. The situation itself, with her being where she was and dressed as she was, would have caused outrage in the breast of the very watchful guardians of morality and puritanical severity, who infiltrated every society along the river, determined to curtail all possible pleasure that man or woman might enjoy. She could still see nothing clearly.

She spoke in a soft voice, “I brought my gun too.” She knew that he smiled, even though she could not see anything other than a darker presence close by.

“Very wise.”

“Do you think they will come?”

“They? I do not know. All indications suggested that someone was curious about us, and the landlord confirmed it. You should not be here, Miss Henstridge, gun or not.” She knew that for herself but was not about to let him risk his life again on her behalf, and with her safe at the other end of the hotel and asleep, while he was in danger and on her behalf. She had long ago discovered that she need not fear for her safety with him. He might possibly be annoyed with her to call her by her proper name.

“Not that again. My name is Caroline.” She corrected him. “Why should I not be here? I am old enough to look after myself; you know that from the other night.” She knew why not, and it had little to do with what she had said, but she wanted to hear what he might say.

“I doubt the management would look kindly upon you being in my bedroom—as you are—and with you barely—” He decided not to point out the obvious deficiency in her attire that he had seen as she had been outlined in the doorway. Even his nightshirt had not been heavy enough to block the light on that table directly behind her, and it was cut far too low for her to risk wearing in company. It had shone through it quite revealingly. No man had ever been constructed so cunningly or disturbingly. He kept quiet.

“Dressed only in my nightclothes?” She could not see his face, but it seemed, from his voice, that he might still be smiling at her despite what he had said. “I suppose it is even worse than that as it is your nightshirt that I am wearing. It is all you left me, and it is too big. Mine is still in here somewhere, so I could not wear that. And they, whoever they are, will not find out.”

“They will if someone else tries to come into here. All hell will break loose then, and the hotel will soon be awake just as the boat was awakened the other night after that shot.”

“No one saw me coming in here. You also have it the wrong way around. This is my bedroom, not yours, with my overnight bag sitting over there and my nightdress on the bed. I also have every right to be here. You are the one who should not be.” She had an answer for everything. “I think if anything were to happen there will be enough confusion, that who might know what might have happened, or who was here first. We can claim that you rushed along from your own room to protect me, and that is why you are here. Who would know otherwise, no matter what might be suspected?”

“More deception! However, we are already practicing that anyway, with me in your room and you in mine rather than where others might expect us to be, except that you are not where you should be. It would not look quite as innocent as you might think with you rather obviously in my somewhat plain nightshirt and me already dressed and my boots sitting there”—he pointed—“rather than in my own room.” She became aware that he was relaxing in his stocking feet—his boots were out of sight—and that he had only his unbuttoned shirt and trousers on. He had intended to relax while he waited, but a keen observer might note those discrepancies. She would not dwell on it.

“Yes. I suppose that if you rushed along here in such haste, you should at least have your own nightshirt on, and would not have had time to dress as you are. I should also be in my own nightdress rather than as I am. Perhaps we should remedy that, now.” Before she had thought further about what she was suggesting, she had let her mind logically lead her along a path that she should not have been going along. Wyatt just smiled at her innocent suggestions that would place them both in a not-so-innocent situation.

“It is dark enough that if I was to change and give you your own nightshirt, and I was to wear my”—what she was suggesting eventually hit through to her, and she blushed—“or not. I suppose not. Though I am sure stranger things have happened in this and other hotels where at least half of the guests may indeed be married but not to each other.” She chuckled at her daring and rapidly stifled it, remembering why he was here. She had heard those rumors, and she recalled that the hotel she had been staying at in Liverpool rented their rooms by the hour. The beds might even be warm, and presumably, nightclothes were neither needed nor expected, as no one was there overnight for the most part, or for any length of time. She knew that he laughed at thought of that daringly suggestive circumstance that she had described—switching nightclothes—being played out.

“Most reckless of you, though you are right. I do not think that it would be wise for me to be found here as I am and with you in my nightshirt and for me to try to explain anything. They might just shoot me out of hand if they found you here with me and dressed as you are.” She smiled and tried to explain herself further.

“I meant that we could exchange. I would give you your nightshirt to put on, and I will put on my own nightdress, and then it will appear as you suggested, to avoid that embarrassing confusion.” She was being daring; even reckless. He had seen her nightdress lying on the bed and had picked it up to put it out of the way so that it would not be easily seen by anyone entering that room. He had seen that it was relatively insubstantial and much lighter than his. She would never dare sit with him if she were wearing only that.

“I think I understood you. Too dangerous to even contemplate how that might be discreetly done with us both here together!” She began to see that her suggestions would only lead into difficulty. “That particular moment, with us both in process of achieving that daring transfer in the dark, is also likely to be the exact moment when our uninvited guests would unexpectedly arrive, and we might then both be caught in flagrante delicto, utter flagrante delicto, with neither of us even slightly covered. What a thought to fan the flames of sermons for the next month! You may have been safer on the boat.” She decided to make no more embarrassing suggestions, and debated returning to his room to wait out the night. However, she decided not to be so easily dissuaded from staying. If she was unlikely to sleep, as would be the case with her being concerned about him, then she might as well stay here. The silence extended for some time.

“If you are determined to stay, despite the obvious difficulties that we just covered, I believe it might be better if we either did not speak, to alert others to what I have planned for them, or we should not sit so far apart, Miss Henstridge, if that thought does not frighten you with us both dressed as we are.” There was nothing to be frightened about with him continuing to call her Miss Henstridge! “We cannot read each other’s lips in the dark and if we converse—as we seem unable to avoid doing for any length of time—we should sit at least a little closer together. That is, if you dare take such a gamble with my difficult character.” He seemed to be amused with the circumstance, and to be challenging her again, as he seemed to have done to get her to go on that drive into the countryside with him.

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